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A New Generation of San Fernando Valley Muralists Colors the City

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It takes mettle to work under the scorching San Fernando Valley sunshine, but not even an epic heat wave that hit the West Coast this 4th of July weekend stopped a cadre of muralists from completing their mission: to finish a mural on the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard and Bradley Avenue in Pacoima. They had been there as early as six in the morning, only to retire as the sun sets, getting as much done as they could.

Two lucky walls gained notoriety because of their efforts -- both part of an insurance company's storefront. One wall shines a happy orange and blue as a beautiful Lady Liberty-esque figure looks benevolently onto Bradley Avenue. Her hair curls along, forming waves of water over which an American bald eagle flies. The mural wraps around the corner and changes into vista of a young girl releasing monarch butterflies into the horizon. The mural abruptly becomes 3-D as the pre-existing canopy over the store's back entrance doubles as the girl's skirt. It is a beautiful picture, but one that also subtly provokes questions underlying human and animal migrations. This is the newest addition to Van Nuys Boulevard's Mural Mile, a growing collection of drive-by artwork that add color and life to the neighborhood, created by an informal crew of artists under 30 years-old.

Eyeing their collection of paint-splattered clothes, piles of brushes thick with drying paint and bronzed complexions, one can see this is not a one-off experience. These San Fernando Valley muralists are reclaiming Los Angeles' reputation for artistry on walls, one façade at the time.

Levi Ponce, 26, is its instigator. Son of prolific muralist and sign painter Hector Ponce, he is a fast-talking charmer with an obsession for the art in his veins.

"If I knew what I was going into, I might not have been brave enough to do it," he says as we chat by the mural in-progress. Ponce has become the primary organizer for young muralists in the area, not by grand design, but by virtue of seemingly endless stock of creative energy.

After painting more than a dozen murals along Van Nuys Boulevard, Ponce wants to open the floor for new voices. Once he clocks out of his regular work as an animator for New Deal studios in Sylmar, he scouts walls in the neighborhood, then knocks on the doors of local businesses with a unique proposition: let us paint your walls with what we want and you get a beautiful work of art for free. It is an irresistible proposal that also favors the abundance of young, creative talent in the Valley. "I get walls," says Ponce. "Now, I'm trying to enable people to get walls." In this case, Ponce designed the Bradley-facing mural, while another muralist, Kristy Sandoval, completed the perpendicular wall facing the parking.

Sandoval, 29, is an artist who studied interactive media at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Sandoval became enamored of the medium while on a brief stay in Brooklyn, but it was only when she connected with Ponce that things kicked into higher gear. While teaching mural design for Youth Speak Collective and other non-profits, Sandoval can often be found tweaking mural designs of her own.

"I want young women to see that they can do something like this too," says Sandoval, who is an unusual sight in a field often associated with males. This January 2013, Sandoval embarked on a new partnership with other women muralists in the area. They have dubbed themselves H.O.O.D Sisters, a collaborative of six to eight female muralists, plus a volunteer crew of more than 20, that meets every other week to discuss available walls, designs, and other matters.

This all-female crew first came together while working on a mural dedicated to African-American activist Assata Shakur. Painted on the side of Stylesville Barbershop at 13161 Van Nuys Boulevard, the mural is an explosion of flowers, which culminates in a portrait of Shakur with the her words: "A woman's place is in the struggle."

Despite its recent notoriety, San Fernando Valley muralism isn't something new. In fact, Manny Velazquez, 54, has been painting murals since he learned the art at 13 years of age. Now, he's content to let a younger generation of artists take the lead.

On-site, Velazquez is a mentor figure. "My goal is to pass this on to others," says Velazquez. By fielding technical questions about the mural, he frees Ponce and Sandoval to actually do some painting of their own rather than constantly be disturbed by easy questions from new volunteers.

"Murals aren't about me. It's more about the content and the people who work on it," says Velazquez. It is a view that's echoed again and again in the words of younger muralists. Unlike most forms of art, murals aren't always the work of a single artist. It is a collaborative effort that showcases a collective spirit.

Perhaps, this connection with others and the satisfaction of creative expression are the primary reasons that these young artists keep on doing their work, despite no pay and hours spent in the heat. Rah Azul, 28, an artist and muralist cites yet another compelling cause. "We are recreating the Valley," he says. "What if San Fernando Valley can become the next mural capital? We don't know, but it's possible." Whether it's pride, creative expression, or community good, these young artists have added color and spirit to what would otherwise be a dull drive through San Fernando Valley.

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